There are many on-going themes in the large discussion of global warming and replacing fossil fuels with renewable, clean energy. One of the dominant ones is that alternative fuels such as solar are much more expensive than fossil fuels. This argument is often put forth by those entrenched in the status quo of the fossil fuel industry. The general argument is that our entire economic world will take a hit if we use solar as it is so much more expensive that oil.

There was a recent news story here at ScientificBlogging saying that it will take another ten years for solar energy to be price-competitive with fossil fuels. That may or may not turn out to be true. What is clear is that we must support innovation on all fronts to shorten that time line. At the same time we must support all efforts to make the solar industry scalable.

Solar power today is in many ways like petroleum of the 19th century. How so? When petroleum was first extracted from the ground in 1861, it was much more expensive than the energy sources that were dominant, wood and coal. It was only when the market was scaled up that petroleum became price competitive. Sound familiar? That is exactly the situation today with solar and other alternative sources of energy.

When looking at the real price of oil, adjusted for inflation to 2006 dollars it cost $100 a barrel in 1865, a price it briefly attained again in 1981 and of course in 2008. In other words, the price of oil when it first came to market in the 19th century was extremely expensive, more so that the competing sources of energy.

Due in part to the relentless drive and ambition of the early oil men, such as John D. Rockefeller, the oil market was dramatically expanded to a scale market that helped to bring down the price. It has been, along with coal, one of the cheapest sources of energy ever since.

So, we should all keep a historical perspective on solar, wind, biomass and all other forms of energy. Whenever a new energy source comes to market it will always be extremely expensive and will remain so until innovation and market scalability is attained. We must be vigilant in supporting all forms of alternative energy in the marketplace as the expansion of that marketplace will drive down costs.

It has been postulated that a 50 mile by 50 mile grid of solar panels in the Sahara desert could generate as much energy in a year as the annual output of Middle Eastern oil. That would certainly bring down the price of solar, as would innovation in the production of all forms of solar panels. We just need to commit to do what is necessary to create scale in the solar power marketplace.

There is an incredible amount of wealth that will be created by those who bring scalability to the solar marketplace.

Who will be the Rockefellers of solar power?